When Driving Your School, Don't Forget to Use the Guardrails
As a school leader, you are the driver of the school. You plan the route and you steer the car. It is also your responsibility to get all your passengers to their destination safely. Most of the time, principals are able to do just that, no matter the circumstance or conditions. However, every once in a while, they may need some help. On the road, sometimes that help comes in the form of road signs, maps, and for safety purposes, even rumble strips and guardrails.
Have you ever veered off the road accidentally? Maybe you were driving late at night and you were tired when suddenly you were awoken by the loud vibrating sound of your car tires moving over the rumble strips built into the asphalt. Maybe something distracted you, a passenger, a favorite song on the radio, an animal darting out into the road, but whatever it is, most of the time our first reaction as a driver is to get back in between the lines as quickly as possible. It is a natural instinct. We want to return to safety.
Fortunately, most of the time we are able to slide back on the road and think little of what happened. We correct the mistake and continue as if nothing happened. However, other times, the rumble strips startle us and we panic and overreact. In those cases, a sudden change of direction often causes much worse results, possibly including a devastating crash.
A good leader, like a good driver, spends a great deal of their time guiding and making slight adjustments to ensure the desired course is maintained. Inexperience or an unintentional overreaction can often cause much more damage than the original miscue.
Thank goodness for rumble strips and guardrails. If you stop and consider their purpose for a moment, you may realize just how thankful we should be and what we can learn from them.
They protect us. The sudden noise is a warning to pay closer attention and ease back between the lines. No harm done.
They provide a safety zone. In most cases, the safety zone between the lines of the road and a guard rail is designed to allow us to self correct before running into real danger.
Guardrails minimize damage. If you are in a situation where you hit a guardrail, yes, your car may receive some damage but, the guardrail also keeps you from driving into far more danger, like rolling off a cliff or worse.
As a driver of your school, it is important that you pay attention and appreciate warning signs and guardrails. One moment things can be going great. You are rolling along with the cruise control on and the radio blasting when suddenly out of nowhere, danger appears.
Some examples of guardrails that you should easily install for the safety of your school:
Culture and Climate
Read the room. Like reading a map, as the driver you have to know where you are going and what roads are going to take you there. There is no better guardrail for a school than a healthy culture.
When is it time to tap on the breaks and when is it safe to speed up? Your staff will give you the warning signs you need if you take the time to look and listen.
How are you using it? How do you get a pulse on outside factors? Good leaders, like good drivers, know how to react in different circumstances. Good leadership and good communication go hand in hand. Don’t hide behind emails, notes, notes, or social media. These tools are good, but show up in person as often as you can. Visibility is a guardrail that helps with your communication and you will find students, staff, and parents will all be more responsive if you can connect with them as a person.
What do you do as the leader to proactively help teachers have what they need to design the best lessons possible? This one can be a little tougher for a principal, but consider what safety measures you have in place that protects students and ensures an equitable learning experience for everyone. (Keep in mind, “the same” doesn’t always mean equitable.)
Lesson Design- Do the expectations and resources (guardrails) provide teachers guidance on what and how to teach? When you see misalignment, do not overreact, simply guide them back on the road.
Differentiation- Do teachers have what they need, in both resources and training to provide appropriate lessons for ALL students? If a group of students is not being served correctly (either too high, or too low) what warning signs do you look for that can guide others back on the road before it is too late?
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are excellent guardrails for teachers. Implemented well, they serve as support as well as safe places for teacher teams to learn, grow, and innovate. Good principals proactively build in the time and training necessary to provide teachers the opportunity to work together and identify needs before they become larger issues.
How does monitoring the level of instruction provide a guardrail? A good driver is constantly watching the road and focusing on what is important. A principal that just drives around “site seeing” is likely to enjoy the ride but may not catch that pothole right in front of them that causes considerable damage.
The number one guardrail for instruction should be teachers receiving feedback from you on what is happening in their classroom. Principals need to be in rooms often enough to know what is going on and who needs help, who needs encouragement, and who needs praise. Go to rooms with a purpose.
Teachers work very hard at their craft. Observing their instruction may be exactly what is needed to determine if they need additional help or training.
What guardrails do you have in place to ensure new teachers are thriving?
In order to make sure your school is continually working to improve, what guardrails or safety nets are in place for teachers that want to innovate or try something new? Do they feel safe doing so?
How does looking at data with your teachers provide a guardrail? If you look at the dashboard of your car, you will find information about the fuel level, the temperature, etc. These instruments serve as a different type of guardrail. They allow you to quickly glance at information and make sure things are running smoothly and doing what they are designed to do. School data dashboards do the same thing.
Equity is perhaps the most important data that a leader can use to ensure the campus is serving and meeting the needs of all students. Are the programs (co-curricular, G/T, electives, athletics, fine arts, etc.) representative of the total school population or does one group seem to either be dominant or ignored?
Attendance and Discipline data remain underutilized data sources in many schools but they are perhaps the road hazard that needs the ultimate attention. Programs, activities, and training to address both of these areas are the guardrails to keep students engaged in school, however if they go unchecked or without being addressed, your campus could be sliding off the road with no safety rails in place. Danger!
It is often not the lack of guardrails and safety signs that are to blame, but it is our decision to n them that cause us the real danger. As a principal and the driver of the school, you should not ignore the many warning signs of your school. As they co fme to your attention address them and make adjustments a little bit at a time rather than overreacting and causing more damage. Stirring the car calmly will instill confidence in your passengers, will keep the school on the right path and out of danger. By doing that, everyone will not only arrive at the destination, but they will enjoy the ride as well!!
None of the ideas above are original. They may seem fairly commonplace in many schools and that is the point. A common drive to work can be routine and offer little in terms of excitement, but part of that is because there are certain safety measures put in place that we take for granted until they are needed. It is only when warning signs are ignored that danger becomes more likely and the guardrails are needed to protect us.
In fact, it is often not the lack of guardrails and safety signs that are to blame, but it is our decision to dismiss them that cause us the real danger. As a principal and the driver of the school, you should not ignore the many warning signs of your school. As they come to your attention address them and make adjustments a little bit at a time rather than overreacting and causing more damage. Steering the car calmly will instill confidence in your passengers, will keep the school on the right path and out of danger. By doing that, everyone will not only arrive at the destination, but they will enjoy the ride as well!!